The Victorian Man Cave

In upper- and middle-class homes across America at the turn of the last century, the man of the house had one room that was his exclusive domain: The study.

Old photo of Ralph Waldo Emerson's study, Concord, Massachusetts
Old photo of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s study, Concord, Massachusetts

The study was a place where the man of the house took quiet refuge. In his study he took care of business matters, wrote letters, or read his newspaper or favorite book in solitude. In some of Isabella’s books, like Jessie Wells, the local minister locked himself away in his study to work on his sermon or write letters to the members of his church.

Another view of Emerson's study.
Another view of Emerson’s study.

In Isabella’s books, the rooms designated as studies had common characteristics: a bookcase filled with books, a desk or large study table, and sufficient light to read by once the sun went down. In her novel As in a Mirror Isabella Alden described John Stuart King’s study this way:

The walls were lined with many rows of well-filled shelves, and a searcher among them would hardly have failed of finding every choice book of the season, as well as the standard volumes of the past. A bookcase devoted to standard magazines was crowded almost to discomfort, and the large study table was strewn with the very latest in newspaper and magazine.

The president's study at a small training college
The president’s study at a small training college

Even little Daisy Bryant understood that the study was a special room in the house. The eight-year-old heroine of Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant lived with her mother and siblings in cramped quarters; but Daisy designated one small section of their main room to be their study:

The floor had a neat strip of rag carpeting over in the part which Daisy called “the study.” There was also a little square table over there, with the Bible on it, and Daisy’s geography, and Ben’s arithmetic, and a tiny basket that held Line’s crochet work. At first, Daisy had objected to the crochet work—that it did not belong to a study—but one evening, in the very middle of Miss Sutherland’s study table, what did she see but a fluffy ruffle with Miss Sutherland’s needle set in its hem, and her thimble lying beside it! Since that time the crochet basket had held peaceable possession.

In the story Miss Sutherland lived in the big house on the hill; and since Daisy’s mother often did sewing for Miss Sutherland, Daisy had seen the Sutherland’s study when she delivered completed work to her. Daisy dreamed of one day living in a home with a real study, just like the Sutherland’s had, with plenty of books, and with framed mottoes on the walls.

Undated photo of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's study, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Undated photo of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s study, Cambridge, Massachusetts

There was a common understanding—sort of an unwritten rule—that no one but the man of the house was allowed in the study except by invitation. After Perry Harrison had an argument with his wife in From Different Standpoints, he retreated to his study, where he knew he would not be interrupted, and he could calm down after their angry exchange:

When Perry came back from the station, after seeing the party off, he shut himself up in the study, not seeing his wife until dinner-time. Then all traces of emotion had disappeared, and he was the affable gentleman exerting himself to be entertaining.

Retailer Jordan Marsh advertisement for a suite of home furniture appropriate for a study or library.
Retailer Jordan Marsh advertisement for a suite of home furniture appropriate for a study or library.

Because the study usually was the bastion of the man of the house, it was only natural that others did not find the place calming and comfortable. If a father had to scold a recalcitrant son or daughter, he called the child into his study. If a minister felt the need to counsel a wayward congregant, he did so in private in his study. Under those circumstances, the study became less like a quiet refuge and more like a place where wrong-doers were brought to account and punishments were doled out.

That thought was uppermost in the minds of Eurie, Marion, Ruth, and Flossie in The Chautauqua Girls at Home when they had to summon their courage to visit their minister, Dr. Dennis, in his study.

“Doesn’t it make your heart beat to think of going to him in his study, and having a private talk?”

“Dear me!” said Flossy. “I never shall think of such a thing. I couldn’t do it any more than I could fly.”

Early photo of the study at the Adams mansion in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Early photo of the study at the Adams mansion in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Later, when Ruth went to speak with Dr. Dennis about finding work she could do for the church, she found herself alone with him in that dreaded room:

It was a place in which she felt as nearly embarrassed as she ever approached to that feeling. She had a specific purpose in calling, and words arranged wherewith to commence her topic; but they fled from her as if she had been a school girl instead of a finished young lady in society; and she answered the Doctor’s kind enquiries as to the health of her father and herself in an absent and constrained manner.

Charles Dickens' study, about 1922.
Charles Dickens’ study, about 1922.

But in one of Isabella’s books, the tables were turned on the man of house. In The Hall in the Grove, Dr. Monteith—the driving force behind the town’s Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle—was in his study when Paul Adams complained to him that the Circle put more emphasis on studying books about ancient Rome than on studying the Bible. Dr. Monteith was shocked.

Seated in the beautiful little study, by the green-covered table, under the shaded light, the Doctor looked full into the earnest troubled face of his visitor. “Now, my friend, do I understand you to mean that the experiences which you have had with the Circle led you to think that we gave the most important place to other books, and shoved the Bible out?”

You would have been sorry for Dr. Monteith, could you have seen his distressed face. He arose and began to walk back and forth in the little study, pondering how he could best undo what his heart told him had been grave mischief.

Dr. Monteith knew that the Bible was “first, best, purest, highest; incomparably above any and all other books.” He had to do some quick soul searching to figure out how he had misled Paul Adams—as well as an entire Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle—so far away from the foundation of all knowledge, the Bible.

Once Dr. Monteith realized his error, the atmosphere in his study changed dramatically. He apologized to Paul Adams and assured him that reading and knowing about the Bible was not the same as reading and knowing the Bible. And before Paul left his study, Dr. Monteith led the young man to make a momentous decision concerning his future and his soul.

So the study was sometimes an important setting in Isabella’s books, as well as in her short stories. In 1888 Isabella published “Papa’s Study”, and you can read it here for free:


It was a very beautiful room, so crowded with books, and papers, and conveniences of all sorts, that you would have supposed its owner could have nothing to wish for, and must be a happy man. Yet on the morning about which I am telling you, he did not look in the least happy; on the contrary, if you had counted the wrinkles between his hair and his eyes, and could have seen the puckers around his lips, which were hidden by a heavy moustache, you would perhaps have called him cross; and you would not have been very far from the truth. Something had happened that morning which made him feel like being cross with everybody.

“To think that I should have forgotten it!” he was saying to his wife, speaking in an injured tone, as though somebody was certainly to blame. “I would not have had it happen for ten, no, not for fifty dollars; and there he was, I suppose, at the depot, looking in all directions for me, and the train waited here fully twenty minutes for the down express. We might have had time enough to settle the whole business. It is too provoking to endure.”

Nevertheless, he knew it would have to be endured, for the train had been gone at least an hour.

“Why didn’t you make a memorandum of it?” his wife asked, taking fine stitches in the ruffle she was making, and speaking in that calm , even tone which is sometimes really irritating to excited people.

“Why, I did, of course; and this morning I looked for my diary to see if there was anything which needed attention before mail time, but I had changed my coat and left it in the the other pocket. A diary is simply a nuisance, anyway; it is always in some other pocket when one wants it the most. I’d like to know how a busy man like myself, who has three ways to go at once, can be expected to remember everything.”

Nobody had told him that he was expected to do any such thing, but he spoke as sharply as though someone had, and walked the floor, and looked wrathful.

Poor man! He had been sadly disappointed. Besides missing a very important bit of business by his forgetfulness, he had missed the sight of a friend whom he very much wanted to see.

Now, his little daughter Almina was in the library annex, hidden from view by heavy curtains, but within distinct hearing; and if you could have seen her I am afraid you would have thought she acted very strangely. Instead of looking thoughtful and sympathetic over her father’s troubles she clasped her two pretty hands together and indulged in a series of happy little giggles. You see, she knew something which her father did not.

In order to have you understand, I shall have to go back a few days. The father’s birthday was coming, and Almina knew it; I am not at all sure that the father did, for he was so busy a man that he forgot even that. And Almina had, with her own hand, written, and, what was much harder, addressed a letter all herself, to a certain “Mr. Frank Smith, Toledo, Iowa.” Truth compels me to state that she spoiled three envelopes before accomplishing it to her satisfaction. In the first one she made the letter F look so much like a T that it read like Mr. Trunk Smith, and she felt sure that would not do; and then, because she had visited once in Toledo, Ohio, and heard about it all her life, and had never heard of Toledo, Iowa, what did she do but write it out nicely on the second envelope—Toledo, Ohio. Of course that wouldn’t do. By this time she was nervous, and blotted the third one badly, but at last it was well done, and the letter was sent.

On the very morning of which I write, there had come an answer to her letter, in the shape of a lovely business-like looking package, done up in heavy paper, and packed in burlap and excelsior, and when her eager fingers reached the treasure thus carefully guarded, it was the prettiest walnut affair, with a lock and key, and inside, a row of compartments bearing the names of the months and the dates; and so arranged that memoranda of what ought to be done, even weeks ahead, could be slipped in, and would remain out of sight until the morning of the day when they were needed, when they would drop into view, and beg to be looked at.

“If papa had only had his lovely little Office Tickler,” she said to herself, as she giggled musically, “he wouldn’t have missed seeing Mr. Felt this morning, I mean to tell him that if he had been forty-three last week, instead of tomorrow, it would have been all right. Oh! I do wonder if there is something he ought to remember tomorrow, and might forget. I mean to ask mamma.”

So the moment she could get a private audience with mamma, they two put their heads together over the fat old diary, whose sides were bursting with important papers too heavy for it to carry. They looked carefully down the page for April 11th, papa’s birthday, but it seemed to be an unusually quiet one. However; the next day made up for it; item after item of business crowded itself in to receive attention; foremost was this:

“MEM. Be sure to remember to send Seward’s note to the bank before three o’clock. It is in the left-hand drawer of the lower secretary.”

“Oh! look,” said Almina, “that is very important, isn’t it? Because papa has underlined it; and yet it is hidden in between so many other things to do, he will be quite likely to forget it. Oh, mamma! Couldn’t you get it for me to put in the Office Tickler?”

Mamma promised to try, and she tried, and accomplished it. There was great fun in the pretty library the next morning. Papa admired the beautiful walnut box to even Almina’s satisfaction, and assured her that it was the most ingenious little creature he had seen in many a day, and he was sure it would save him much time and patience. And then he heard all about how she earned the money to buy it, and “wrote the letter her own self,” and “had it come by express to her own address;” and he called her a dear little woman of business, and kissed her as many times as he was years old.

And all the time the important paper which was to be remembered the next morning without fail, was hiding behind its partition, biding its time.

The next morning Almina had forgotten all about it, but at eleven o’clock her father came hurriedly into the music-room where she was practising, and stooped down and kissed her.

“Papa ought to be tickled now in good earnest,” he said with a curious mixture of fun and earnestness in his voice. “What will my little girl think when I tell her that her Office Tickler has saved me at least five hundred dollars? I did forget all about the note, important as it was. This is a very busy, anxious day with me; but just as I was hurrying to go to the bank, I caught sight of my new possession, and saw I had not changed the date; I had not begun to use it yet, but I determined to gratify you by leaving it in order; and the moment I touched the card, out dropped that very forgotten note. I’m in great haste, little daughter, but I felt as though I must stop and tell you what a valuable selection you had made for my birthday present.”

A very happy little girl was Almina, then.

Ad for Office Tickler
An actual 1887 newspaper advertisement for F. E. Smith’s Office Tickler.



Free Read: The Book that Started it All

It’s hard to imagine a world without Isabella Alden’s wonderful books and stories; but, left to her own devices, Isabella never would have become a published writer.

Advertising Card 1919

From a young age she had been taught to let her imagination soar. She began keeping a diary at the age of six, filling it with records of daily events and bits of stories. And even before she could write, Isabella’s mother encouraged her to make up little stories—perhaps from a picture Isabella would show her, or out of a few toys or some flowers. “Make a story out of it for mother,” was a most familiar sentence.

Out of those beginnings, Isabella developed her writing skills, and she continued to craft stories for the amusement of her friends and family. Her talent showed in school assignments, too; her compositions always earned good grades and won her recognition and prizes.

It was at school that Isabella Alden met her good friend, Theodosia Toll, nicknamed Docia. They were students together at Oneida Seminary in New York. After they graduated, Isabella returned to the school as a teacher; and since Docia’s family home was nearby in a neighboring town, the young women saw each other often.

Laude-Calthrop-Old-LettersAfter the close of one particular school year, Docia arrived to help Isabella pack up her things. Isabella was leaving the next morning to spend the long vacation at her family’s home, some eighty miles away.

While Isabella packed, she tasked Docia with sorting through the papers and books she had stored in a large trunk. As Docia went through the trunk, she came across a story Isabella had written as an entry for a writing contest. Here is Isabella’s description of what happened next:

“Why, Belle!” she suddenly exclaimed. “Here is that story you were to send to Cincinnati! Didn’t you do it after all?”

“No, I didn’t,” I said.

“But you promised!”

“No, not exactly. I said I would, if I didn’t change my mind, and I changed it.”

“Well! I think you were a perfect simpleton! It might have taken the prize. I thought it was the best thing you had written. What do you want done with it? Oh, say! Don’t you believe! The time for sending manuscripts isn’t up yet! Here is the printed slip that tells about it. There are seven days yet. Now do be sensible and send it on. Just think what fun it would be if it should win the prize!”

Then I appeared in the doorway and spoke with decision.

“I’ll do no such thing. If I can’t write a better story than that, it proves that I ought never to write at all. Tear the thing into bits and throw it in the grate with the other rubbish. I’ll set fire to them tonight.”

Luckily, Docia saw the promise in that story and instead of tearing it to bits so it could be set on fire, she submitted it to the contest under Isabella’s name.

Postman 1909Two months later, Isabella was shocked to receive a letter from the Western Tract & Book Society in Cincinnati, congratulating her on her win. Enclosed with the letter was a check for fifty dollars!

After she got over the initial shock of winning a prize for a story she thought she had burned, Isabella realized that Helen Lester was something to be proud of—especially once the contest judges explained the reason the story won:

“In the opinion of the carefully chosen committee of award, it met the condition imposed by the grand old Christian gentleman who offered the prize. It was to be given for the manuscript that would best explain God’s plan of salvation, so plainly that quite young readers would have no difficulty in following its teachings if they would, and so winsomely that some of them might be moved to take Jesus Christ for their Saviour and Friend.”

Original 1865 Cover of Helen Lester
Original 1865 Cover of Helen Lester

And how did Isabella spend that fifty-dollar prize money? She made two packets, each containing “the enormous sum of twenty-five dollars.” She placed one of the packets inside a bound volume of her first book, Helen Lester. On the fly leaf she wrote:

“Presented to my honored father.”

The second packet went into another copy of the book; and on the fly leaf she wrote:

“To my precious mother.”

Then, in both books she wrote those “wondrous words that must have trembled with excitement, and ought to have been written in capitals”:

“From the Author.”

Book 3Helen Lester was published in 1865 and with it, Isabella’s writing career was launched. The following year she published another children’s book, Nanie’s Experiment; Jessie Wells was published in 1867, quickly followed by Tip Lewis and His Lamp. After that, she published multiple titles each year, demonstrating both her talent and her discipline as a writer.

Since then, her stories that explain salvation through Christ and the rewards of abiding faith in God have enlightened and entertained generations of readers around the world.

Cover_Helen Lester resized

You can read Helen Lester for free. Click on the cover to begin reading.

You can learn more about Isabella’s friendship with Docia by clicking here.


Jessie’s Jockey

Jessie Wells, the heroine of Isabella Alden’s 1880 novel by the same name, never went anywhere without her jockey. Of course, when Isabella wrote about Jessie’s jockey, she didn’t mean someone who rides a horse . . . she meant Jessie’s hat.

Jockey hats were very fashionable from the 1860s through the early 1900s. The style of jockey hats changed over the course of those years, but the basic design remained the same: a jockey hat had a brim or peak that protruded in front and a rounded, narrow crown that fit close to the top and sides of the head. Jockeys were usually trimmed with a tassel or feather.

Elisabeth McClellan illustrated the 1860s style of jockey hat in her book, Historic Dress in America.

Drawing of a woman in Victorian-era dress and hairstyle wearing a hat that sits high on her head with several feathers swept back from the brim.
Illustration of a jockey hat from Historical Dress in America by Elisabeth McClellan.


The style of hat was so much in vogue in 1860s America, a popular song was written about it. You can click on the image below to read the song’s lyrics.

Cover illustration showing a woman in Civil War era dress wearing a hat that fits against her head, with a turned up brim and a tassle on one side.
Cover to the sheet music for the 1860s song Jockey Hat and Feather.


Perhaps the most famous illustration of a jockey hat was the one fashioned for the character of Scarlett O’Hara to wear in post-Civil War Georgia in the movie, Gone with the Wind.

The famous jockey hat worn by Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind.
The famous jockey hat worn by Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind.


Though it was made of drapery fabric (as we all know), Scarlett’s jockey was quite fashionable with its styling and trim.

Jessie’s jockey hat would not have been as fashionable or as luxurious as Scarlett’s. Jessie’s jockey may have been made of straw, and the brim might have been more like a visor than a peak pulled low on her forehead, as this 1878 illustration shows:

Drawing of a young girl wearing a straw jockey hat with ribbons trailing down the back.


Straw jockeys were in fashion in the 1870s and 1880s. Isabella may have imagined Jessie’s hat of straw, because she wrote scenes in the book where Jessie set her jockey down on the ground (an action that would have soiled a jockey made of fabric) and she often used her jockey to fan herself.

Illustration of a woman with her arms around a young girl who is wearing a straw jockey hat trimmed with flowers and pulled forward over her forehead.
Version of a girl’s jockey hat from La Mode Illustrée.


In the late 1800s the styling of jockey hats changed again. Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine described the latest version in their November, 1883 issue:

Article describing jockey hats made of felt or velvet. This has a visor, front, and band of the close cap worn by jockeys, but the crown is higher, has a crease or fold front to back, and the back of the crown is cut off so that it rests lightly upon the knot of hair..

Interestingly, what was fashionable in America was not so fashionable in other parts of the world. The British magazine, Household Words, published this warning about jockey hats in 1884:

Article condemning jockey hats for grown-up girls because they make the wearer look "fast."


In America, there were no such restrictions, however, and ladies wore their jockey hats sitting forward on their foreheads at a fashionably jaunty angle.

Color illustration showing two women and a young girl dressed in Victorian-era attire and wearing embellished straw jockey hats pulled forward so the brim covers their foreheads.
Fashionable jockey hats for ladies and young girls, from La Mode Illustrée.


Many thanks to blog reader Merry Chris for suggesting this topic.

Cover_Jessie WellsYou can click on the book cover to read more about Isabella Alden’s book, Jessie Wells.

The Molasses Cure

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, there were very few trusted commercial medicines to alleviate cold symptoms. People often relied on folk remedies and home-made treatments to cure a variety of illnesses and injuries.

A scene in Jessie Wells illustrates the point. Jessie and her best friend, Mate are sitting outside on the porch one evening when Jessie’s father comes home from work.

Dr. Wells came up the walk at this moment, and the two girls arose to give him passage.

“You are two very sensible young ladies, staying out in all this dew, with your thin dresses,” he said, as he passed them. “Tomorrow you’ll be taking molasses and ginger by the quart.”

“No, indeed, Doctor,” laughed Mate,” I never take any horrid doses like that.”

Horrid doses indeed! The molasses and ginger cure for a sore throat was fairly common, and it sounds like Dr. Wells believed in its curative powers. In actual fact, the ginger tended to suppress coughing and the molasses soothed the throat.

Molasses Cure v3

Another home remedy for colds was a mixture of molasses and a few drops of kerosene in a glass of water. As questionable this home cure may sound, it was one of the few cold remedies that didn’t contain alcohol.

Medicine 2

Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (the 1861 authority on running the home) suggested an “infallible” cure for a cold, which included rum in its ingredients:

Put a large teacupful of linseed, with 1/4 lb. of sun raisins and 2 oz. of stick liquorice, into 2 quarts of soft water, and let it simmer over a slow fire till reduced to one quart. Add to it 1/4 lb of pounded sugar-candy, a tablespoonful of old rum, and a tablespoonful of the best white-wine vinegar or lemon-juice.

.Commercial medicines also included alcohol. Bitgood’s Original Compound Vegetable Syrup boasted it could cure the common cold, as well as a host of other ailments. The manufacturer was one of the few who revealed that their product contained alcohol, although the ad doesn’t state how much alcohol was actually in the mixture.

The majority of commercial medicines did not disclose the alcohol content in their products.

This lovely trade card advertises a ginger cure that sounds just like the kind mothers everywhere mixed up with molasses in their kitchens. The product description on the back of the card touts the benefits of the medicine, but doesn’t list the actual ingredients.

Molasses cure 4b front

Too bad; because, in actual fact, Parker’s Ginger Tonic was 41.6% alcohol—more potent than 80 proof whiskey! Compare that to the average alcoholic content of today’s beer (5% alcohol) and wine (approximately 12% alcohol).

It was the rule, rather than the exception, that consumers had no idea that they were dosing family members with alcoholic products; and since many alcohol-laden medicines of the time were specifically marketed to children, mothers often unwittingly gave their little ones rum and whiskey.

Little wonder, then, that Isabella Alden often wrote about the dangers of alcohol consumption. At the time her books were written, people usually didn’t know they were consuming alcohol and often didn’t recognize their growing dependence until it was potentially too late.